In Toledo, immigrants share traditions through the arts

By Alyse Riffer

Carol Rubio has loved to sing and perform since before she came to the United States from Mexico five years ago.

“Since I was little, I always wanted to sing. I knew I wanted to do that,” the teenager said. “I really never thought of instruments in the first place. I used to tell everybody that I could make it [music] with just my voice.”

By 13, Carol was a student at the Toledo School for the Arts and a member of a mariachi band. She looks at her performances as opportunities to educate and entertain others.

“[My friends] don’t know about Mexican culture, and so this is a way to show them my culture and for them to actually enjoy it with me,” she said.

Carol performs frequently at different events and festivals related to hispanic heritage and culture, so she was ecstatic when Welcome Toledo Lucas County asked her to perform at Amal from Afar, an event where multiple immigrant and refugee organizations came together to celebrate Little Amal, the 12-foot puppet of a 10-year-old immigrant girl that has traveled across the world.

“I feel like I should take advantage of everything that I have right now at the age of 13… I’m getting all of these opportunities, and I think it’s great,” Carol said. “I enjoy it.”

Attendees gather at Amal from Afar at a Toledo library on Feb. 24, 2024. (Photo: Alyse Riffer)

Carol chose to sing deeply significant songs at the event on Feb. 24. She researched meanings behind traditional Spanish lullabies that translated to a mother serenading her child about the beautiful things in the world. She wanted to leave the impression that the songs could lull those refugee children to sleep, as they may not be with their families, and hopefully offer a sense of calmness.

Mely Douglas decided to organize Amal from Afar as a way to connect with the refugee and immigrant community in Toledo. Douglas is an immigrant herself from the Philippines and works as the librarian of Welcome TLC, an initiative that started in 2018 as a cross-sector networking house for immigrants and refugees in the Toledo area with the purpose of building up and strengthening the community.

“It would be such a shame not to engage our youth in our community so that they can start thinking about, you know, an issue that’s going on, that’s affecting us, but I think is more so going to be affecting future generations,” she said.

Along with her advisory board, Douglas helps coordinate events and activities and also addresses issues and concerns in the community.

“We can see what other communities, that are of similar size, how they’re attacking that issue, so if we can find some solutions that, you know, caters to what our community needs, then it’s wonderful to have that resource,” Douglas said.

While the main purpose of the February event was to commemorate Amal, many people from refugee families gathered at the celebration to perform dances, songs, poems and other performances to celebrate the cultures of their homes. Welcome TLC showed a film called Simple as Water and provided a poetry writing workshop as well as crafts, resource tables and refreshments.

Mely Douglas, left, and Carol Rubio on stage at Amal from Afar in Toledo on Feb. 24, 2024. (Photo: Alyse Riffer)

Juan Rojas performed a few of his poems at the event. Rojas is an author, poet, former professor and DEI consultant. He came to the United States for his college education after graduating high school in Mexico. After completing his master’s and doctorate. degrees, he accepted a teaching job at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Though Rojas taught for a long time, poetry has always been his passion. His work is inspired by the scenery of his home country, specifically the desert, and what it represents to others versus what it means for him.

“For me, the desert has been very important. I was born and grew up in the desert, so many, many of my books or poems are playing [at] that place, but it’s a place where there’s life or there’s mystery – there’s magic,” Rojas said. “I grew up on the border, racially influenced by two languages and three or four different cultures.”

Rojas hopes to introduce new perspectives through his writing and connect others through shared differences by performing his poetry at events like Amal from Afar.

“What’s amazing is that we’re all there with one objective, creating a single community,” he said. “People… [come] to the same place with different experiences, different languages, different relations, for an identity, etc. [It’s] opening an opportunity to learn and to know each other and that creates inclusivity.”

Douglas said she wants to further promote inclusivity and safe conversation at Welcome TLC, and she wants others to reach an understanding of immigration.

“It’s part of our humanity to migrate. We’ve done this for, you know, millennia. That’s just how it is,” she said. “We want folks to be able to think about why other people would migrate. But, really… It’s for the next generation. We wanted the children to be able to understand and to build bridges of understanding.”

This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative news outlet publishing journalism by Kent State students.

Discover more from

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading